Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and I have the same Saturday night schedule for the Washington National Opera. My wife and I, along with the couple we go with, always like to peer over the balcony from our seats to watch Ginsburg — tiny and frail-looking — escorted to her orchestra seat, just before the curtain.
I wondered what she might have been thinking this past Saturday evening, when word of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia came through. In her poignant statement on the passing of someone she describes as a best buddy, Ginsburg makes an operatic analogy — he as a tenor, she as a soprano. A one act opera called Scalia/Ginsburg by Derrik Wang did actually debut last year, depicting their friendship. What an almost dreamy image — close friendship between influential people, serving in the white-hot light of Washington policy and politics, and occupying the opposite ends of the idealogical spectrum.
Strangely enough, the opera, more a musical play, presented Saturday night (the dated “Lost in the Stars“) depicted an unlikely friendship between opposites; in this case a black country pastor and a white country baron in 1940s South Africa.
From here the music turns decidedly cacophonic. Supreme Court appointments in modern times took on the capacity for sheer ugliness when then-Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) excoriated Judge Robert Bork in such a way as to make those familiar with Bork’s record wonder who he, Kennedy, was talking about. But Kennedy didn’t invent vitriol against nominees, he merely refreshed it. Check out the reception no less than Louis Brandeis received when he was nominated in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson. In truth, more of them have been controversial than not.
My first thought on seeing the news on my smartphone with near-simultaneous alerts from four major news organizations: Oh, here comes another ugly battle in Washington. Now dozens of articles and analyses have spewn forth, all saying the same things. Much will depend on whom President Barack Obama picks; Republicans are promising to force the nomination into the next presidency; the change in fillibuster rules for judicial nominees will bite this side or that; Scalia’s death has produced another presidential election element. This during a primary season that is already looking surreal.
Coming on the heels of an ungainly 2017 budget rollout, the Supreme Court nomination fight threatens to derail an already-tenuous promise by both Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). It was weakened when, for the first time in recent memory, the chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees refused to hold hearings on the request.
Now, as Roll Call among other reports, the vacancy is likely to cause even more gridlock. I spoke to Senior Editor David Hawkings about this. He says it will almost certainly prevent the “regular order” Ryan was pushing for — meaning forget about a 2017 budget being debated, voted on and passed on time.
What could prevent this? Short of the President choosing a confirmed conservative or Republicans going along with whomever the choice actually is, the answer is: not much.